Change Of Plans
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One decommitted from Iowa State. The other one committed to one Michigan staff and decommitted from the next one. It's December 2015, and Illinois' double-interim coach Bill Cubit and his newly-appointed DC Mike Phair are looking for linebackers. Where do they find them? In the decommitment pile. Who benefited? Lovie Smith in 2019.
Let's start with Jake Hansen. On August 1, 2015, Hansen committed to the Iowa State Cyclones. Four months later, the coach he committed to, Paul Rhoads, was fired after a 3-9 season. I'll let Hansen take it from there.
"When he got fired I was going to honor my commitment and stay committed to Iowa State", Jake told me. "I had everything planned to do that, but they never called me about anything. And I had seen [the new Iowa State coaching staff] very active in recruiting on social media, talking to old commits, and they had never reached out to me. Eventually I got to the point where I had to reach out to them, to see what was going on, and they could never give me a straight-up answer. So I was just like, alright, well I'm done with that school."
The staff at Illinois was in a bit of turmoil of its own at the time. Bill Cubit had been given a two-year extension on his one-year interim head coaching contract, and one of his first steps was to let Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks go and move defensive line coach Mike Phair up to full-time DC. Because of this, and a lot of other obvious turmoil, from August through December, 11 players had decommitted from the 2016 recruiting class. So Cubit and Phair set out to find some linebackers.
The first one the landed on was Hansen. "It was Coach Cubit's staff that offered me", Hansen said. "Coach Phair reached out, I talked to him for awhile and he's a big reason why I went. I ended up committing on my visit in January."
With one linebacker secured, Cubit and Phair went looking for another. And they looked over the decommitment pile again, finding a Michigan decommit who was looking for an opportunity.
Dele Harding committed to Michigan as a high school junior. During his junior season in the fall of 2014, to be exact. But he experienced the same thing as Hansen: a coach fired after the season. Brady Hoke lost his job, but Harding kept his commitment to Michigan and their new coach, some guy named Jim Harbaugh. But then, the next fall, things began to change.
"I committed to Michigan junior year", Harding said. "I was one of the first or one of the few who was actually online as far as commitment to Michigan. Years after that, going into my Senior year, the place wasn't for me, just from the feedback that I got. Not to be down any other program or anything like that. It just wasn't for me."
I'll let you determine what "the feedback that I got" might mean, but the bottom line is that Harding was looking for a new school. It's a story we'll see play out again in just a few weeks. Players back on the market, scrambling to find a new school. Like Hansen, Harding heard from Illinois.
"I want to say it was probably a couple weeks before Signing Day, actual Signing Day. I made my visit to Rutgers a week prior to coming to Illinois on an official; and just fell in love with the program here man, it was everything that they had to offer as far as academics, traditions, everything like that. And with the Dick Butkus also being a factor in here, the legacy, he left his mark on the program. So I was definitely sold on that and I committed to Bill Cubit."
Five weeks later, Bill Cubit was relieved of his duties and Lovie Smith was installed as the head coach. So Harding hadn't played a down yet and had gone from Brady Hoke as his future head coach to Jim Harbaugh to Bill Cubit to Lovie Smith. Hansen had a similar journey as well - Rhoads to Cubit to Lovie.
They arrive in June of 2016 to be part of Lovie Smith's rebuild. And that rebuild began almost immediately. Six weeks into the season, with the top two quarterbacks injured and the third string freshman QB in the game, the coaching staff began the rebuild in earnest but sitting several seniors and turning to the freshmen all across the field. Both Harding and Hansen found their way into the lineup, with Hansen even starting a game (Minnesota). And even though he didn't start a game, Harding had his breakout game in the home win over Michigan State with 7 tackles. The future of the linebacking corps seemed set.
But there were some detours along the way. At training camp in August of 2017, Hansen tore his ACL and was out for the season. Harding started five games at linebacker, splitting time with Tre Watson and Del'Shawn Phillips. And the 2017 season was the depths of the rebuild, with Lovie's second team closing out the season by going winless in the Big Ten.
Harding was not without injury troubles as well, missing four games in 2017 and three games in 2018. So as they reached their fourth seasons (Harding a true senior, Hansen a redshirt junior because of the missed 2017 season), they only had 20 starts between them despite both playing as true freshmen. But if there's one thing that has settled the entire defense this season, it's Harding and Hansen knowing each-other's every move. Hansen told me how it all developed.
"We've always worked together, done extra drills and things like that, different movement while we've been here. Anytime I'm doing something extra, he's doing something extra. It's just one of those things where we're constantly pushing each other. We've built a lot of chemistry throughout these past three years as well coming into our fourth year. Having a lot of practice reps together helps a lot too. It's hard to describe, but when you have a different chemistry with another person on the field, your communication is that much quicker and that much easier to understand what he's meaning."
Keep in mind, I'm talking to them during a week where Hansen was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award (meaning, he was named as one of the top 12 linebackers in all of college football, and he's only a junior), while Harding was given Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and named Nagurski Trophy.
Once the season is over they'll be able to see how their chemistry pushed this defense to its best season in some time. But with only a few games remaining, I asked Harding to reflect on his journey, from Michigan commit to 3-9 Illini seasons to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards.
"If I could just sit down and even discuss my whole full story man, it's definitely a story to remember. Relating it back to high school with the whole decommitment process and even recent years here winning like three games and their tradition wasn't really carried well. And our players being all in. It was just a blessing to even be where I'm at to be honest with you."
"The feeling is definitely indescribable man, I'm just blessed to be in this position and I'm happy for the team. I'm just proud of these guys."
If the current fanbase mood is any indication, the feeling is mutual.